Violent coming-of-age for the boys who power Thailand’s industrial sector

BANGKOK, Thailand — In the early morning of Sept. 1, along a dingy industrial stretch of Bangkok, a panicked teenager leapt onto a commuter bus.

Through the window, passengers saw his pursuers: a shouting pack of 20-odd schoolboys in matching starched shirts. Many gripped wooden sticks. Some pelted the bus with glass bottles. The driver mashed the gas pedal.

Then came the gunshots. Bullets punched through the bus’ rusty siding and blew out the back windows. When the passengers finally raised their heads, they saw a small boy bleeding out in the aisle.

Four shells had missed their target — the fleeing teenager — and instead killed Jatuporn Pholpaka, a 9-year-old en route to primary school.

The third-grader was an unintended casualty of Bangkok’s technical school wars, a tradition of beatings, stabbings and occasionally killings between feuding vocational academies.

For decades, wayward trade students have waged tit-for-tat street fights against rival schools. But this new low — the death of a 9-year-old bystander — has educators and politicians struggling to reign in the near-daily attacks.

More than 1,000 student fights were reported in the first half of 2009, according to police, and 639 incidents were logged throughout 2008. Even Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has condemned the feuding as a national menace, ordering officials to quell the violence.

“When I saw that boy get hit, oh, it broke my heart,” said Somyot Paditchai, a 45-year old motorbike taxi driver who witnessed the shooting. The stick-wielding pack of teenagers ran screaming past his taxi stand, he said.

“But if no one had died, I wouldn’t think much of it. This is normal. I’ve seen schoolboys fighting with knives, wooden stakes, everything. It’s never going to stop.”

Thailand’s 400-plus vocational schools provide skilled laborers to the country’s vast industrial sector, accounting for 45 percent of GDP.

Vocational students are often Thai teenagers without the money, connections or high marks needed for general college. With a trade school diploma, young men can land decent-paying jobs, namely in a growing automotive sector that employs 450,000 Thais.

But almost every trade school has its institutional rival. As with any tribal feud, proximity breeds enmity. Scuffles break out when students of closely neighboring schools cross paths at bus stops or shopping hang-outs.

Enemies are easily spotted by their institution’s crest, engraved into belt buckles or embroidered on neckties.

“In ones and twos, they walk around looking like scared kids. Once they form a crew, they walk around like this,” said Somyot, jutting out his chest and screwing his face into a goofy scowl. “They’re always trying to outdo each other. If you hurt or kill someone, you’re a hero.”

Violent tech school posses are called “gangs,” but they’re much more akin to the Westside Story’s Sharks and Jets, who battled over turf and bragging rights, than crime syndicates like the Bloods and Crips. These brawls are fought for adolescent glory and little else.

“After they graduate, the problems disappear,” said Tatree Darat, an instructor at Bang Kapi Technology School, where two of the bus shooting suspects attended.

“These boys leave here to go work for Toyota, Honda and Izuzu, working right beside guys from rival schools,” he said. “Like nothing ever happened.”

Before the bus killing, the most infamous flare-up of trade school tension was last year’s all-out melee in front of MBK, a heavily touristed downtown mall. The roughly 100-student battle erupted just days after boys from rival schools were summoned for a truce involving a public exchange of flowers.

Interviewed outside their schools this week, few vocational students would discuss details of their violent rivalries.

One student, identified by friends as a brawler in the MBK shopping mall fight and who grew terse when questioned, claimed to suddenly recall a doctors’ appointment and ran off. Others claimed, quite dubiously, to have never even heard of the widely publicized mall melee.

“It’s really only about 10 percent of students that like to fight. The rest of us just watch our backs and get home quickly,” said Chanu Praitheun, a 17-year-old student at Chao Phraya Technical School. “Sometimes they’re fighting over a girl. But most of the time it’s over nothing.”

Authorities responded quickly to this month’s bus shooting, arresting two teenage suspects the next day and shutting down the institution that both attended.

Incensed by the shooting, Thailand’s education minister suggested a scared straight-style intervention: bussing the worst offenders to Thailand’s dangerous deep south, where Islamic insurgents have carried out near-daily murders. (That proposal was later withdrawn after media criticism.) In coming weeks, the minister will summon administrators from 40 violence-prone schools to parliament for a session on stopping school feuds.

But officials’ reactions have failed to inspire confidence in Bangkok residents. More than 87 percent surveyed by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University in the wake of the bus shooting said authorities have done nothing to solve tech school violence.

“I tired of it, what if I get hit one day?” said Tacharee Nidam, a 20-year-old female student who uses the same bus line struck by Jatuporn’s killers.

“If I see a bunch of tech school kids on the bus, I’m hardly brave enough to hop on,” she said. “But what can I do? I have to ride the bus.”

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